by Minah ShahbazDear Sara,
Happy Birthday!!! 16, huh? Somebody's growing up pretty fast. I still remember you as the annoying young brat who'd follow me around repeating everything that I would say. Some days I definitely felt like strangling you. Mom would have been excited about your birthday. She would have probably thrown a huge bash for you. I still remember my 16th birthday. Mom made such a big deal out of it that I was kind of embarrassed. I miss mom. Anyway, hope you have fun with your friends and remember me some.
21st October, 11:00 a.m:
"Thank you, Baba."
A bell shrills in the distance. It's probably lunch time.
"How is school?"
Baba crosses and uncrosses his legs, looking supremely uncomfortable in the visiting lounge. He twiddles his thumbs and looks with approval at the pristine interior of the room.
"It's a good school. One of the best boarding schools in Pakistan. Remember that. Are you doing well?"
"I am, Baba." I quietly reply.
"Remember you represent our family, Sarah. All the Khan women went to this school. Your aunts, your grandmother and even your mom. You have quite a reputation to uphold."
"I know, Baba."
Baba nods. He seems to be avidly studying the white washed walls, bare except for the occasional long scratch here and there. In his starched white shirt, he almost seems to fade into the walls.
"Oh well, I have a meeting in an hour. I just wanted to wish you Happy Birthday." Baba stands up, awkwardly pats me on the back and leaves the room.
As soon as he leaves the room, I heave a huge sigh of relief. I can suddenly breathe easier. Ever since I can remember, Baba and my conversations have followed the same pattern. He asks me how I am, how is school, pats me on the head and leaves. Maybe it's because of the fact that I have lived away from home so much. After all, I was only ten when Baba sent me to boarding school, I muse, as I walk out of the lounge and towards the classroom. This school is more my home than the huge, white bungalow in which Baba lives.
Jesus and Mary's Boarding school for girls, I pronounce the name with a certain pride. Set in the hills of Murree, with its brick buildings and uneven ground, it is more of a retreat than a high school. I can never explain the connection I feel with the rambling old buildings, surrounded by a thicket of bushes. It is my real home.
Even now, just walking towards the familiar classrooms, I feel uplifted. I hum to myself. It is after all my birthday.
21st October, 4:00 pm:
"What do I do now, Maria?" I anxiously question my friend, while keeping a firm grip on the squirming red bundle in my arms.
"I don't know," she replies, nervously chewing her fingernails. "Maybe we could give it away to somebody. Strangling is out of the question, poisoning, hmm, might work, but how do we obtain the poison."
"MARIAA!!" I yell. "We cannot kill this dog. It's only a puppy."
"Uh, ok. Just an idea. Your brother, by the way, is an idiot." She says calmly.
"I know. Shhhh!! Don't talk so loudly. What if that idiotic Noor hears us. She is just the kind of person who'll go tell Baba. You know how he absolutely adores her. Beta, Noor is a credit to her family. Become like her." I imitate Baba. "Translation: become a prim, stuffy old lady, have no fun and generally die an old maid."
"Whoa, somebody's bitter."
"No, I'm not. I just.... don't like her much." It is the understatement of the year. I HATE HER. She has a way of making me feel quite inadequate as Baba sings her praises whenever he has the misfortune to meet her. However, I have bigger issues to think about, namely this puppy that even now squirms in my arms, whining through the red blanket that covers it.
"Hold it for a second, will you? I need to go to the bathroom." I say as I hand the puppy to Maria. She gingerly takes the bundle from me.
I return from the bathroom to find an empty room. Suddenly, I hear a shrill scream from the direction of the common room. Shit! That sounds just like Maria. With a mixture of dread and foreboding, I open the door to be greeted by a bizarre sight: Maria and Sister Clara, the house mistress, cling to each other as the Golden retriever races madly in the room, in the process upending all the chairs in the room. I hurriedly call out to him.
"Puppy, Doggy, come here." The puppy, however, is lost in its own world. It seems much more interested in chewing the ends of Sister's habit, while Sister hangs on to Maria for dear life, crying for help. Maria teeters under sister's weight as Sister has her arms wrapped around her in a death grip. I can almost hear Maria gasping for air. Suppressing a sudden urge to giggle at the bizarre situation, I rush to catch the stupid dog. It takes me ten minutes to finally corner it in the room and capture it in the blanket.
The next 20 minutes, however, are not pretty. Sister Clara yells at me while staring mutinously at the torn ends of her habit, takes away the poor puppy and horror of horrors, threatens to write to Baba. Maria and I can only stare at the floor, imagining Baba's shocked face and severe words.
Somebody had quite an adventure I hear. Even proper young ladies need to have some fun. I don't know how you can live such a life. I feel suffocated whenever I think about it. It's almost as if you live in the Victorian age, not in Pakistan. I don't know why he shelters you so much. You, my dear sister, seem to be living the life of The Little Princess. So out of touch of reality. Your Baba has done his best to create an illusion for you: perfect little Pakistan, with its perfect rich little misses, who will graduate with honors to get married and raise perfect miniatures of themselves. Have you, my dear sister, ever felt hunger, looked at disease, slept uneasy or, worried about your next meal? Probably not. Such things were always reserved for the 'petty minded journalists' and 'hot blooded revolutionaries' that Mr. Khan, your Baba, always kept us away from. Mom, however, disagreed with him. Do you know mom always dreamt of being a lawyer? Criminal law was what she hungered for. Mr. Khan, however, would have none of that so mom was just the perfect little housewife. Take it from me: Never let anything stand between you and your dreams. Not even your precious Baba.
27th October, 11:00 am "I am disappointed in you, Sara."
"I'm sorry, Baba."
"You're 16. Not some 10 year old school girl. Why at this age your mom was already married? Why can't you become more responsible?"
I hang my head. Baba has a way of making me feel very small at times. This visiting room in my school has never held fond memories for me. I always remember Baba and his reprimands as soon as I enter this room. The white walls with their blemishes remind me of all the mistakes that I have made. The straight backed chairs with the table in the center are as welcoming as anything in an inquisition room.
I am suddenly angry at him. Why is he making such a huge deal out of it? It's not as if I ran away with a guy, got drunk or wasted. It was just a stupid dog. Even though I have never seen a bottle of alcohol, let alone thought of ever drinking, the very idea of drinking makes me feel nicely rebellious. My brother is right. I have no life. Baba has done his job well.
"So where did you get the dog from? Was it from a... ahem...boy? Are you keeping something from me Sara?" Baba haltingly asks me, tugging at the collar of his snowy white shirt, looking supremely uncomfortable.
"No, Baba." My denial is swift and emphatic. Ok, I go to an all girls' school. My chance of meeting boys is absolutely nil. And even if I meet somebody, I never really know what to say to him.
Baba's relief is evident.
"This seems exactly like something your bro..." Baba suddenly stops. He looks at me and then at the walls.
However, he doesn't say anything and just sits there gazing into the distance.
"Why did he go away? Was he sad because mom had died?" I ask, feeling like a six year old child, questioning her dad about the monsters that never left the closet for some unknown reason.
"You're not old enough to understand such things." Baba distantly replies.
"But..." I protest.
Baba looks at me. True to form, I quail under Baba's forbidding gaze. My palms get clammy and I look down at my feet again.
Baba gets up to leave.
"Was it because he wanted to become a 'petty minded journalist' and a 'hot blooded revolutionary'?" I ask Baba guilelessly.
Baba stops. He turns around. He opens his mouth to say something. Stops and leaves saying:
"Do not believe whatever you hear, Sarrie. Concentrate on school."
He called me Sarrie. The long forgotten nickname makes me want to cry. It brings back memories of a faceless mom, a brother that I can barely remember and a dad who once hugged me, instead of patting me awkwardly on the back.
He is right. I am quite the little princess. I have everything. I don't need to worry about money or food. I have Baba and friends, yet I am sitting here, crying about nothing. I hastily wipe away the tears. Suddenly, I want to forget all about Baba and my mysterious brother.
27th October, 7:00 p.m:
"Aren't you excited about this, Sara? We're going to an actual concert. I don't know how Sister Clara agreed to let us go." Maria says excitedly.
"Yippee. Kill me before I die from happiness." I reply grumpily.
"You're such a grouch. I'm just happy that we're getting out of this place for a little while. It's not that I hate you guys but I'm sort of happy that I'll see more of the opposite sex, instead of a range of females." Maria continues happily, brushing her hair.
I don't answer. After the morning encounter with Baba and my brother's surreal letters, I've had enough of males. I do not want to go anywhere. I want to curl up in my room and just... think.
Maria, however, will have none of that. She drags me out of the room and in a huge group all of us climb aboard the bus. Reminds me of a prison. Inmates, march inside. Inmates, have your food. Inmates, bow to the superior knowledge of the males in your family. Ok, so I was exaggerating. But who cares? It's not as if Baba can even curtail my thoughts. In the mad rush, I find myself seated near the esteemed Miss Noor, Baba's favorite girl.
She smiles at me as I force a half-hearted smile to my face. Blessedly, she does not talk to me during the entire journey. Both of us are content to sit quietly, while a babble of voices rises around us. Just as I am feeling guilty for all the bad names that I had ever called her, she turns to me and says,
"How is your father?" Sucker. Little Miss Hypocrite. Probably asked me this because that's the nice thing to do. Isn't she just the nicest girl you've ever met? People of the world, bow to Miss Pakistan. I inwardly fume and curtly manage a "Fine, thank you for asking."
"You know, he's always been really nice to me and he loves talking about you. I think I know you as well as anybody else. It's quite a change from my dad. He talks more about my brothers than about me. You're quite lucky."
I'm floored. I can just nod stupidly.
"Do you play cards?"
"Just wondering. Your father just loves to play them, doesn't he?"
"Yes." I lie, even though I've never seen him play. I have never thought of Baba as having any interests. He is just...Baba. And who would have thought that Baba even talked about me. I always imagine him constantly caught up in his work, never once thinking about his lone daughter, who he visits at best once a month. I don't know what to think now. Noor has only succeeded in confusing me.
I have great news. Forget about Mr. Khan. He never understood pranks of any nature. If he wasn't a businessman, I would have termed him a relic from the army. "Why the bitterness?" you ask me in your letters. I don't know. Maybe, it was the day I realized that I was part of my father's grand schema: perfect son to take over his perfect business enterprise. I wanted more out of life, Sarrie. I felt suffocated by him. I wanted to travel, live on my own. Maybe write, paint. Who knows? I had grand dreams. But he saw it as rebellion. He tried to counter it. He was slowly breaking my spirit. I HAD to get away. What do I do now, Sarrie, you ask? I am an ordinary man, not the son of the legendary Mr.Khan. Do I write? Do I paint, you ask? I write. I write for the trashy newspapers that my father derided. Am I happy? I don't know. But I feel free and that's saying something. Do I remember Baba? Yes, I remember Baba but not the man who disowned me when I asked for something more out of life than what he was offering me. Most of all, I miss mom. I felt a kinship to her. She'd often whisper how I'd grow up to live her dreams. Maybe, I am doing just that. Maybe, you will too Sara.
Oh, that's what I had to tell you, Sara. I'll be coming over to see you on 4th November. I'll finally be able to see you. Better yet, you can come with me. See more of the world. Shed your little princess existence, little sister. The Baba I knew died with mom. He will never let you live the way you want to live. Sara, remember freedom is extremely powerful. It's drugging. Intoxicating. Think about it.
November 4th, 11 a.m:
I am in some weird dream. I am finally going to meet my brother today- my estranged brother- who I've only communicated with through letters. The only proof that I have of his existence is the thick wad of letters sitting in my desk drawer. He, however, has left me confused and anxious. It's almost as if he's demanding loyalty from his younger sister or maybe confirmation of the fact that he is right about Baba.
I don't know what to do. I can't talk to anybody. Maria knows about him but sees him as a romantic idealist not to be taken seriously. I know him. I know his dreams. He dreams just like me. He is probably more courageous than me. I don't even know what to dream of now. Do I yearn for all that he talks about or am I happy being the Little Princess?
"Sara, your dad is here." A girl calls out to me.
For a second, I'm frozen. Ok, Baba is here. What do I do now? What if he comes while Baba is there? Will Baba know that I am thinking of going away from him and living with my brother, who swears that I need more out of life than I have right now?
I walk to the school visiting lounge, my inquisition room.
Is it my imagination or does Baba look different today? He seems edgier, distant. His normally pristine white shirt is crumpled. Today, instead of sitting down, he paces the length of the room. I sit down quietly as he walks to the window. He fumbles in his pocket and takes out a cigarette. I sit there, shocked as he lights it. Baba abhors anything that might be considered addictive. "Weaknesses" he calls them.
He looks at the cigarette. Then at me. He shrugs. Then abruptly:
"Sarrie. Am I a good father to you?"
"Y-yes, Baba." I reply, taken aback by the use of the nickname and the sudden question.
A bell rings in the distance as Baba agitatedly paces the room.
"Your brother walked away because I was a bad father. I couldn't stop him. No, I wouldn't stop him." He corrects himself. "I suffocated him, he said. Maybe I did. But I was so scared of losing him, you know. The more I held on to him, the more he slipped away from me. I MADE him run away, Sarrie. Your mom always said that he would do that if I kept pressurizing him. I didn't listen. Why should I have? I wanted my son to be the best. I wanted him to achieve my dreams and to do all that I had never done. I was wrong. I lost him and then I lost your mother too." Baba pauses. He turns to me:
"Do I suffocate you Sarrie? Do you hate your life? Have I made mistakes? Or should I ask, will I lose you too one day?"
I can do nothing except shake my head. This display of emotion from my stony-faced father has stunned me. I just can't imagine him actually...feeling something. He is looking at me expectantly. I want to say something. No, I won't leave you, Baba. Maybe I misjudged you. But I just can't bridge a gap of some 16 years in one day. I say nothing.
Baba despondently pats my head again and leans against the white walls. With his eyes closed, he asks:
"Is he happy, Sarrie?"
November 4th (Later in the day):
He has not come today.
I have flashbacks today over and over again. At times, I see him as a slight, edgy young boy, as he paced the grounds with a cricket bat in one hand. Then I see him when my mom died. I don't remember anything except the continual weight of his hands on my shoulder and a feeling of being perplexed as I took in the scenes of mourning. I didn't understand what was going on but I felt comforted by his hand. At one point, I just snuggled up to him and went to sleep. I was three then.
And then I see him leaving. A pale blue shirt. Baba's angry face. And the endless wait.
He didn't come back as he hasn't come today.
In some ways, I am glad.
Hi! I don't know what to say. Was I disappointed you didn't come? Yes. I like to think you wanted to come and were probably caught up in something. Your newspaper work, maybe? However, I'm still the Little Princess, away from reality, caged by the unrelenting Mr. Khan. Do I like it? I don't know but I'm more at peace with myself. Maybe, I will always be the Little Princess and all that I have ever wanted in my life is a dash of emotion, affection, love. Baba will be Baba. He'll never hug me; maybe never actually talk about my dreams and my aspirations. However, I'm comforted by the fact that as I go to sleep, I have somebody who lives in a white bungalow. Somebody that I can call my own. He loves me, loved you in fact, in his own way. Do I want freedom? I don't even know what it is. All I know is that this is the only life I've known and the only one I might want. I have friends, Baba, your letters and a picture of mom. You probably think I am a coward for writing all this. You were always more courageous than me. More like Baba than you ever realized. You could easily break the bonds. For me, some bonds just remain too hard to break.
Your Little Princess
The letters have stopped coming.